About seven years ago, the Tennessee private prison where I’ve been incarcerated for the past 26 years created a special housing unit for veterans and people over 50. It seemed like a great idea; both categories of prisoners are usually not much trouble, and for the vets with post-traumatic stress disorder it was no small mercy to be moved to a quieter, calmer environment than general population.
“It was great being in a unit with other veterans. We understood what the other was going through; it’s hard to put into words,” Ben, a Marine who worked at Guantanamo Bay from 2003 to 2008, told Filter.
Just about all the vets I know in here report similar histories: PTSD and depression, which, due to lack of accessible treatment, they self-medicated with a range of regulated and unregulated drugs, mostly marijuana and methamphetamine. Then they were locked up—some on drug-related charges, some not—and not given access to treatment, so they self-medicated with drugs. The Department of Veterans Affairs hadn’t helped them in the outside world, and none of the vets I spoke with had bothered reaching out since they’d been locked up here.
All prisoners here are drug-tested at random, so it didn’t take long for the vets’ urine drug screens to start getting them kicked back into gen pop. “I never got caught with a positive drug test, but after so many of my buddies got kicked out, I didn’t want to stay,” Ben said. “It just didn’t seem right.” The special housing unit is mostly an old folks home these days.
Below are the experiences of some of the vets in here, in their own words. Interviews have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
“They were happy to get a gun in my hand, but not so happy to help me now.”
A 42-year-old Hispanic man deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2005
After I got kicked out of the vet unit, I went on suicide watch. I just don’t want to live like this anymore. My brain is so fucked up that I don’t know how to fix it. When I go and try to talk with mental health people in medical, all they want to know is whether or not I want to hurt myself. They couldn’t care less about all the other stuff in my head.
I was the first kid in my family born in America, and I was happy to go and serve in the Army when shit happened over here. But all that shit and chemicals I was exposed to fucked me up in the head, and no one gives a shit. They were happy to get a gun in my hand, but not so happy to help me now. So what if I took some illegal shit to help me survive? I wasn’t hurting no one. I just want to go to sleep.
“In the field it was not uncommon to use small doses of meth in order to function—it’s the only way I could do what I was supposed to do.”
A 44-year-old white man who was deployed in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005
After 911, I couldn’t wait to join up and go kick some ass. I was a paramedic and was used to working in chaos, so it seemed right to be a medic in the army. I saw some fucked-up shit. When it’s happening, your training kicks in and you just do what you’ve been trained to do. But afterwards, those flashes of severed arms and legs and people begging not to die, they haunt you.
In the field it was not uncommon to use small doses of meth in order to function—it’s the only way I could do what I was supposed to do.
When I came to prison, the night terrors really acted up. I’m an occasional user of meth—it is the only thing that helps me to cope. But failing a drug test in this shit hole meant that I lost my bed in the vets’ unit, and was put out to the wolves.
“You just can’t drop a bomb in the middle of chaos and think it won’t explode.”
A 39-year-old white man who was deployed in Iraq in 2003
The only thing that has kept me from going bat-shit crazy on these fuckers is dosing myself. If they knew what I was capable of doing, they would have me in a padded cell. I was a computer code writer, but America trained me to kill and I was good at it. You just can’t turn that shit off. They should thank me for securing the drugs I need to control myself.
If they were smart they would have evaluated veterans entering the system to see what psychological needs and meds they need to survive this place. You just can’t drop a bomb in the middle of chaos and think it won’t explode at some point in time.
“Why they started a vet unit without considering that we probably would need some treatment is stupid.”
A 35-year-old white man who was deployed in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2009
Before coming to prison, the only effective treatment for my severe depression was cannabis. The other drugs they tried on me barely allowed me to function, and certainly not maintain a job.
After my tour, I got a job on the police force in Memphis. My nerves were still shot, but that type of work is all I knew to do. It looked good on paper, but in reality I was in no shape to do anything. I used pot for a while just to calm my stomach. Going to the doctor when you are in the military or in police work and telling them you have great anxiety is a sure way to get your gun and badge taken.
I tried meth after I busted some college kids with the stuff. It was my miracle. Finding the right amount to take was the tricky part. In the joint, I do a lot of weed just to stay mellow. I lived in the vets’ unit for a year before I got kicked out. Why they even started a vet unit without considering that we probably would need some treatment is stupid.
“This is what America trained me to do, and now they want to punish me for it.”
A 54-year-old Black man who was deployed in Afghanistan for several tours beginning in 2001
I was getting a thinly rolled joint for $10 a few times a week, just to take the edge off and let me get a decent night’s sleep. After a drug test, they kicked me out of the unit and back to gen pop.
It’s not like the prison is offering any type of counseling for us vets with PTSD or any other therapy. I don’t expect the prison to sanction marijuana use, but they could have at least understood where we were coming from and deal with us, not punish us back into general pop. Lord knows what type of trouble we get into, but it’s not because we are trying to act out, we’re just reacting to the things around us. This is what America trained me to do, and now they want to punish me for it.
A few days after I spoke with Ralph, someone slammed a domino into a metal table with a sound like a bomb, and Ralph beat the guy enough to put him in the infirmary. Ralph was taken to isolated segregation.